This year September 8 (tomorrow!) is RUOK? Day. It’s an Australian day of action which aims to prevent suicide by encouraging us to connect with our colleagues, friends and loved ones. Here at Hope Street Cards we love the premise behind RUOK? Day because it’s about connection. Connection through meaningful conversations to help reduce some of the devastating effects of being in a really shit place.
I used to feel a little uneasy about RUOK? Day. It was a combination of things. I worried that people may not be sufficiently resourced to deal with the outcome of a negative answer in response to the question. And I questioned whether this was just another opportunity for ‘inspirational stories’ about mental illness, that can be sometimes offensive and unhelpful for those who might be experiencing significant distress.
Mostly I think I was just concerned about another awareness day making very little difference to the lives of the people I was seeing at work at the time.
Like many Australians experiencing mental ill health, the clients I were seeing during the first years of RUOK? Day were having difficulty with pretty much everything related to the mental health system. Accessing regular care. Psychiatrists, that didn’t charge a treasure chest. Medication on the PBS. Inpatient treatment in the public system. More than weekly one-to-one counselling sessions. This stuff was just not there. And lot’s of it still isn’t. And so cynical Sam saw the whole thing as a bit of, well how is this really going to help. It seemed like a bit of a band-aid approach, when we needed a whole leg amputation – let’s be nice and support each other and things might get better.
But over the years my attitude has changed pretty dramatically. It is bittersweet to see suicide prevention so prominently in the media. But, I cherish it. Things change by people talking about stuff. Surely they do. I hope they do.
One thing I like about this campaign, is that it is about reaching out to all those people, through their own existing networks, who aren’t accessing treatment for mental health issues. And these people are the majority.
We know that almost half (45%) Australians will experience a mental illness in their lifetime, but 65% of people with mental illness do not access any treatment. No. Treatment. At. All. This is worsened by delayed treatment due to serious problems in detection and accurate diagnosis. The proportion of people with mental illness accessing treatment is half that of people with physical disorders.
But RUOK? Day helps get to these people. And hopefully before things become too severe. The earlier someone accesses treatment, the better their recovery will be,
Far and away, the thing I love most about this campaign is the question.
We use common social niceties every day, to the point of them becoming pretty much meaningless. “How are you?” asks the young person at the supermarket. “How's your day been?” smiles the pharmacist as he hands you medication for your incredibly obvious rash. “Have a great night!” you say to your colleague who secretly frustrates you because of his loud eating habits at his desk.
The phrase “how are you?” is so common it has lost all meaning. Imagine the teenager at the supermarket being forced to hear about all my social anxieties, political anger and back pain as he places the zucchini in my bag. It would be absurd and almost rude to emotionally dump on him if one was having a bad day. So instead, we go through the motions. We smile, we say, “I'm good thanks, how are you?” and we don’t event register it’s happened. The smile is returned, “Good thanks.” The zucchini is scanned and life goes on.
But changing the language alters the question entirely.
The message of the question – are you okay? - encourages a much more empathic response. Asking this question, over one more commonly utilised, implies that the person asking is ready to listen. And genuinely wants to know the answer. And since it’s inception in 2009, the question has now become synonymous with this non-profit organisation. And due to their excellent marketing strategies (how do we get some of those?) it’s hard not to know what they’re on about. So whether you’re asking the question or being asked, it’s a beautiful opportunity for a meaningful connection with someone.
Unfortunately though clinical mental illness and suicide are incredibly multifaceted issues and can’t often be treated with one loving and meaningful conversation. Let’s not oversimplify or generalise these health issues. To imply that mental illness and suicidality occur purely because of a lack of human connection would be both inaccurate and offensive.
Having said that, RUOK? Day is simply a way to encourage connections, reduce feelings of loneliness and promote change whether though increasing access to treatment or by furthering our discourse on the subject. By asking or being asked the big question, there are some great things that can come from it.
Here’s our Hope Street Cards tips for RUOK? Day –
It’s OK Not To Be OK
Buddha said that life is suffering. He was probably a total buzzkill at parties, but there is truth in that statement. Everyone experiences pain in their life, some more then others Acknowledging that you are suffering is not wallowing: it is the only way through it. In a culture of “she'll be right!” and “toughen up” it can be terrifying to admit that you’re struggling - but it is also incredibly brave and courageous! Take the leap.
I'm Not OK – Now What?
If we encourage people to ask each other R U OK?, we need to be prepared for if they say they aren’t. Communication is vital here and in an ideal world, both parties in any exchange would be open, honest and tactful about their feelings. Wouldn’t that be a lovely world?
If someone admits to feeling down, it’s really, really important that you refrain from shouting “It’s okay! Here I am! Let me fix this!” and attempt to fix them. People are not broken objects and we do not need fixing. We all have past experiences, and in some cases physical chemical imbalances, that result in us feeling or thinking a certain way. You can support, help, love, nurture - and if you're so inclined, provide interpretive dance with karaoke - but you cannot fix.
When I'm not OK and have reached out to a friend, I have been asked “how can I help?” This is a good question to ask. This will of course vary depending on the situation, but it might involve some or all of the following:
- Talking through a specific situation
- Providing distractions
- Sitting with them
- Just listening. (I had to repeat this because it is very important)
- Validating their feelings
- Encouraging them to contact their support team if they have one
- Helping keep them safe (see below)
One Size Doesn't Fit All
This may contradict the aforementioned suggestions but: there is no easy checklist for how to help someone through a tough time. Every mental illness is different and every individual experience of that is unique. We need to value the lived experience and learn from it. Try not to assume, and never dismiss the impact of kindness.
It’s not a one off
Check back in! Regardless of the outcome of the situation, follow up. If they're really struggling, follow up with them sooner. You could say: "I've been thinking of you and wanted to know how you've been going since we last chatted."
Stay in touch and be there for them. Genuine care and concern can make a real difference
If the ‘S’ Word Comes Up
It’s possible that a loved one might disclose suicidal thoughts to you. This could happen whether you have asked or not. Whatever you do, don’t ignore these thoughts and comments. Whilst it’s a really great thing they’ve mentioned it, if you’re not a health professional (and even if you are) it’s important your loved one discusses these thoughts with a professional as soon as possible.
In Australia, the following services can provide crisis support in the event of suicidal thoughts or plans:
- Any member of the public can make a call to the Crisis and Assessment Team in their local area (it will be in the phone book or google it) if they are worried for someone’s safety. It may feel dramatic but it could save someone’s life.
- The Emergency Department at your local hospital
- Calling ‘000’ and requesting help from the Ambulance
- Lifeline: 13 14 11
I’m not alone
And neither are you. Or you. Or you. We’re all trying to do the best we can. We’re all experiencing some form of shit along the shit spectrum, whether it’s avoiding the demons that are our thoughts or screaming internally and cursing flat-pack furniture.
I – and it appears most of the others on the planet - do not have the answer for curing mental illness. I do know that it will require more that one day of question asking.
But for me, learning I’m not alone, and that there’s others out there struggling and suffering and surviving has helped to reach out when I need it. It has helped to listen to Dr M’s advice. It has helped to keep me taking my medication even though I think it is hindering my capacity for love. It has helped to challenge my fears. It has helped to make jokes to help process the pain. It has helped knowing that most of us are fumbling our way through life, searching for meaning and just trying to keep our heads above water. Buddha, you jolly old jerk – you were right.
So, let’s kind to our self and be kind to others: it is literally the least we can do. On all of the days. Let’s do it by talking. Keep talking people, keep talking.
For support and guidance please contact the agencies below:
BeyondBlue – 1300 224 636
Headspace – 1800 650 890
LifeLine – 13 11 14